Italian players were left heartbroken after suffering a 19-17 loss to Fiji in the 11th place play-off at the University of Western Cape Stadium to condemn them to relegation to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy next year.
Fiji had led 19-10 with 10 minutes to go and while the Azzurrini fought back to within two points thanks to a try by captain Giovanni Maistri and John Apperley conversion, they could not another score to pull off the great escape.
Italy have already negotiated the route from JWRT to JWC one before, winning the Trophy in 2010 to re-join the elite nations in the Junior World Championship the following year on home soil, where they survived the relegation play-off by beating Tonga.
Fiji had moved into a 6-0 lead with two early penalties, but then the Italians came back at them, Apperley’s penalty and conversion of Giulio Bisegni’s try. Sevanaia Galala’s try restored Fiji’s lead with Tikilaci Vuibau’s boost ensuring they led 16-10 at half time.
Apperley missed a penalty on the stroke of half time that ultimately proved the difference between JWC survival and relegation with Fiji’s only score of the second half – another Vuibau penalty – putting them beyond reach.
Italy will now have to regroup and win the Trophy in 2013 to return, their place in the Junior World Championship in France next year to be taken by the winner of the 2012 tournament currently taking place in Salt Lake City, USA.
"It has been a game fought to the last second, we can't say that we have kept anything back, we have managed to hold them back from scoring a second try in the second half, but unluckily it went this way," said Italy captain Giovanni Maistri.
"This defeat will cost us relegation, I won't be able to be with this team (next year) but some of the guys will go to play the Trophy and the objective will definitely be to get back up."
Fiji coach Sale Sorovaki added: ''You know our aim today was to win, whether by one or by 50. This was really a very hard game for us both on the field and especially off the field. The players have come off two disappointing losses, one to New Zealand and to Samoa, and I take my hat off to the players. We had to play for our existence in this competition and full credit to our team."
Target secured for Wales
While there was heartbreak for Italy, Wales and Ireland both had cause to celebrate after recording their best ever finishes in the tournament. The Welsh beating Argentina 25-3 to finish third, after Ireland had battled past France 18-7 in the first match at Newlands.
Wales had been determined to finish strongly and claim third, beating the fourth place secured by the 2008 side led by Sam Warburton and featuring the likes of Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies who are now established members of the senior Welsh side.
The majority of their points came from the boot of Tom Prydie, who already has four Test caps to his name from 2010, the wing kicking four penalties and converting the penalty try his side were awarded to give them a 19-0 lead at half time.
Argentina captain Sebastián Poet got them on the board with an early penalty, but two more Prydie penalties increased the Welsh advantage once more, only for Los Pumitas to hit back with tries from Facundo Isa and Juan Cappiello.
There was to be no fairytale recovery though, Wales holding on to achieve their goal of third. Despite the loss Argentina will still return home happy, having secured their best ever finish in the five-year history of the tournament, beating their previous best of sixth on home soil in 2010.
“We knew what was at stake for us and we managed to go out and get third. It’s a proud moment for us. No one has ever come third for Wales in a World Cup before so we’re really happy,” admitted Prydie, who also labelled the placing as “up there with winning my first cap.”
Irish rue missed opportunities
Ireland, meanwhile, were left pondering what might have been after adding the scalp of France to their earlier ones of South Africa, Italy and England with a hard-fought but disciplined 18-7 victory to secure fifth place – besting their previous best of eighth place in 2009 and 2011.
France, who suffered a first loss to Ireland at Under 20 or Under 21 level in the Six Nations earlier this year, started the brighter in the opening match at Newlands, but the loss of three players to injuries unsettled them a little and Ireland took their opportunities to lead 6-0 at half time.
JJ Hanrahan, one of the nominees for IRB Junior Player of the Year 2012, narrowly missed with a kick from the halfway line but made no mistake with two other efforts, slotting them between the posts as France paid the price for ill-discipline.
The fly half extended Ireland’s lead to 15-0 with three further penalties, leaving France needing to score three tries to win. They got one when young centre Gael Fickou powered over, but there was no way back, leaving Ireland to wish they hadn’t let England fight back to win in the pool stages.
“If things had gone a bit differently for us we might have been in the semi final of a World Cup so that was disappointing, but we took it all in our stride and we aimed to finish as high as we could," said Ireland captain Niall Scannell.
"I’m just really proud of the players for the effort they put in and the attitude they showed to come back from the (England) defeat in the middle of this competition. We spoke last night about doing ourselves justice. People will go on to do different things, in and out of rugby. But wherever it takes us we wanted to be proud of what we did today.”
England turn it around
Their Celtic rivals may have secured their best ever finishes, but England were already guaranteed their worst whatever the result against Australia, having failed to reach the semi finals for the first time in the tournament’s history.
Two of the pre-tournament title contenders, they had both endured disappointing campaigns and this match proved a tale of two halves at UWC, Australia leading 13-3 at half time but England then scoring 14 unanswered points to emerge victorious and salvage seventh spot.
Two penalties from fly half Kyle Godwin and a try from captain Liam Gill gave Australia the lead with only a Tom Heathcote penalty on the board for England, both kickers having missed with two attempts at the posts in the first half.
England, just as they had against Ireland in round two, came charging back in the second half with a try for hooker Koree Britton and three penalties for Heathcote. Australia did create chances but could not finish them off and had to settle for eighth place.
Scotland find desired performance
The first match of the day, the ninth place play-off between Scotland and Samoa at the University of Western Cape Stadium, had earlier proved an entertaining affair with distinct periods as the Scots started and finished strongly but allowed the Islanders to come back at them either side of half time.
Scotland came firing out of the blocks and had scored at nearly a point a minute to lead 29-0 after half an hour with Finn Russell, Robin Hislop, Tom Steven and Jamie Farndale getting the tries, but any thoughts of a runaway win were quickly dispelled as Samoa came to live.
First wing Utu Poliko showed his pace to outstrip the defence down the wing to score the opening try and centre Robert Lilomaiava then had the strength to dot down the ball under pressure to cut half time deficit to 29-14.
Lilomaiava scored again two minutes into the second half, but Scotland then regrouped and ran in four second half tries, two of them by replacement Tommy Allan who plays his rugby for Western Province, to seal a 62-28 win to equal their best ever JWC finish of ninth back in 2009.